As winning candidates contemplate the election returns this week, some exude Titanic sentiment: "I'm the king of the world." Losers often feel they're the king of nothing. And yet, the last may be first.
I wrote a column four months ago about corrupt Henry Clay, the 19th century's Bill Clinton, and noted that he came to Christ only after losing his last attempt at the presidency. Some readers have wondered how that happened, and what happened to Clay afterwards.
Sen. Clay's running mate in 1844, Theodore Frelinghuysen, was a human helper in the conversion process. Whig Party leaders had given the vice presidential nomination to Frelinghuysen, a former senator who was president of the American Tract Society and well known for his piety, in the hope that his name would temper voter suspicion of Clay's loose construction of not only the Constitution but biblical ethics.
Voters did not buy the idea of a halo by association, however. After the 67-year-old Clay lost to James K. Polk, Frelinghuysen may have fulfilled God's purpose in having him on the ticket by writing to the deeply disappointed candidate, "As sinners, who have rebelled against our Maker, we need a Saviour or we must perish.... Let us then repair to Him."
Henry Clay took to heart that admonition. He had once written to a minister that "in the active bustle of life and its varied occupations" there was no time to think about God. But Frelinghuysen's solicitations helped Clay to begin realizing, as he told another minister, that he needed "to attain a firm faith and confidence" in God's promises: "There is nothing for which I feel so anxious."
Anxious, yes, but Sen. Clay still ran from God for another three years. He found the deeper questions finally inescapable in 1847 when Henry Clay, Jr., the only one of his five sons to overcome psychological problems and turn out right, died while fighting against Mexico in the battle of Buena Vista.
"Oh God, how inscrutable are thy dispensations," Henry Clay wrote at that time. "There are some wounds so deep and so excruciatingly painful, that He only can heal them.... The death of my beloved son is one of them." That death was the final push he needed. On June 22 , 1847, he was baptized. On July 4th he looked for help beyond Washington as he took the Lord's Supper.
Clay even said that he thanked God for the demise of political hopes: "I shall have more leisure to dedicate my self to Him, to my religious duties, and to the proper preparation for another and a better world." Approaching 75 and aware of a decline in his health during 1851 and 1852-he coughed frequently, and some doctors diagnosed tuberculosis-he seemed to grow stronger spiritually.
Sen. Clay tried to convey to others what he learned, speaking with congressmen such as John Breckinridge about "the vanity of the world, and its insufficiency to satisfy the soul of man." He took communion regularly at Trinity Church in Washington and spent much time with the chaplain of the Senate.
Still, his unfaithfulness to his wife over the years had taken its toll: She remained in Lexington, Ky., and his remaining children communicated irregularly with him, if at all. All that kept Clay going was Christian faith, which was still new to him and not as firmly planted as years of dedication would have brought. Nevertheless, he still said he had no "apprehension of death.... I am ready to go whenever it is the will of God that I should be summoned hence."
Even Washington cynics, with their knowledge of the long Clay history of adultery and political shenanigans, and their expectation that he would never change, were impressed. In 1852, the dying man told colleagues of his "abiding trust in the merits and mediation of our Saviour" and "full faith in the great leading doctrines of the Gospel."
Shortly before Clay died in Washington on June 29, 1852, apart from his family with the exception of one son, the senator who had trusted only in himself told one and all, "I trust in the atonement of the Saviour of mercy, as the ground of my acceptance and of my hope of salvation." Buried not in Washington but in Kentucky on July 10, "the great compromiser" was finally free from the political swamps. Electoral and personal loss had led to great gain.